Bohumil Hrabal and his cats.
When we’d all made it through the winter, and spring had arrived, a small tabby cat showed up at our place and she was pregnant. By this time, Blackie was pregnant, too. The two cats loved each other and, because they were expecting, they followed me around incessantly. Wherever I went, they went, too, and I was always tripping over them, but nothing upset them as long as they could be with me. They would gaze at me adoringly and I knew they were looking to me to help them when their time came.
My neighbor, Mr. Eliáš, made me a bird feeder, an absurd looking contraption cobbled together from an old radio. He’d removed the guts, staved in the front panel, mounted it on a base that he fastened to a post, then drove the post into the ground outside his window, right where there was a break in the fence. Whenever I arrived at the cottage to tend to my cats and to write, I’d crumble some dry bread and oatmeal into the feeder for the sparrows and the titmice and the occasional jay.
I was horrified at the prospect of the cats having kittens. I was afraid they’d have them in my bed, as Blackie’s mother, Máca, had done. I worried about what we’d do with so many kittens and it killed me to think that if each cat had four kittens, I’d have to drown them. Not all of them, I’d leave the mothers two kittens each, but I’d still have to be the executioner, which is what I used to have to do in Nymburk, when no one wanted to drown the kittens and it fell to me, who loved cats, to be the one to do it, and to dispose of the bodies as well, and it was all because once, we kept all five kittens and when they were old enough to live on their own, no one wanted them, and we ended up with so many cats that we were constantly stumbling over them and then, as the devil would have it, four of the five kittens turned out to be female and within a year all four of them had young ones and we were as unhappy as my wife was later, when she’d complain, whenever she came to Kersko for the weekend: “What are we going to do with all those cats?”
At the time, my wife would spend most of the day cooking for the cats and doling out milk for them, but the main problem was they were happiest in the kitchen and the room reeked of cats. I was so used to them I couldn’t smell it myself, but anyone who came to visit would always sniff the air. The cats would do their business, not just in the basin filled with sand, but sometimes in the corner of the kitchen, or the pantry, and when they had diarrhea, they’d poo wherever it caught up with them, and my wife would go around in a permanent state of seething reproach. She was sick and tired of washing the sheets and cleaning up the mess on the carpet, so I would do it. Every weekend I’d wipe up after the cats, first with a paper towel and then with a damp rag, and sometimes my nerves would snap and I’d shout at them and shoo them outside, and sometimes I’d even hit one of them. Or I’d be sitting and writing and suddenly, instead of a cat meowing at the door to be let out, I’d hear the awful sound of innards being voided, and I’d see red and pick the cat up and smack it, or sometimes I’d drop it on the doorstep and send it arcing into the woods with a powerful kick. The other cats would immediately flee outside, where they’d cower in shame and guilt and I would stop writing and feel sorry for them. I couldn’t write because I had struck a cat that I loved, I had kicked an innocent creature who meant everything to me, and sometimes, when in Prague, I’d feel such a sudden longing to see them that I’d drive out to Kersko and pick them up and press them to my forehead, so they could absolve me of my fears and my sorrow.
I was ashamed at what I’d done and I’d go outside and would sometimes spend the rest of the day trying to win back their trust, to get back into their good graces and persuade them to come back home. But those creatures were more deeply ashamed than I was and they were loath to go back to a place they’d been kicked out of, a place from which I’d driven them, because not only can cats feel deeply embarrassed, they cannot forgive as readily as I forgave them.
So I stopped spending the night in Kersko. I’d merely write what I had to write, feed the cats, and then leave by bus or by car, but I’d always turn to look back, or stop the car, and I’d see all the cats standing there as usual, peering through the fence, and their tiny heads looked so sad I’d step on the gas, or jump on the bus, which was my preferred means of travel because I’d be so distraught at leaving the cats I feared I might drive down the wrong side of the road, or into the ditch.
It was strange, when I’d drive to the cottage by car, when I’d enter the Kersko forest and arrive at the spot where I turned into the lane leading to the cottage, I could see my cats come running in from the neighboring lots and gardens, so that by the time I pulled up to the gate, they’d all be standing there, beaming with delight that I’d come to be with them, that I’d made it, that I’d be giving them milk and food and taking them into my arms and finding consolation in each of them and giving each of them the courage to go on living, because these cats of mine may well have felt completely alive only when I was with them. And when I’d finished cuddling them and the weather was nice, I’d urge them to go outside and get some fresh air, to go and warm their coats, but I’d have to carry them out of the bedroom because they wouldn’t have gone on their own. Their greatest delight was to be with me.
That week I didn’t sleep over in Kersko because I didn’t want to be there when the cats had their kittens. One day, I arrived to find the tabby cat missing, only to discover her in the woodshed where she’d given birth to five tiny kittens in a potato basket. She licked my hand and then, with her paws, she guided my fingers to her babies, who sucked at them, and they were as tiny as transistor radio batteries.
I stroked the kittens but was trembling with dread because the longer I allowed my hand to linger, the more I knew that this was the hand that would have to randomly choose some of those kittens and usher them out of this world. I felt the bile rise within me and my stomach began to ache. I poured out milk for the other cats and cut up pieces of meat for them, but when I sat down at the typewriter, I couldn’t write, because my hands were shaking and I couldn’t type a coherent sentence. I walked past the woodshed, followed by Blackie, who walked behind me because her belly, too, was enormous and she was close to her time. I squatted down and she hopped onto my knee and arched her back and nuzzled against me, seeking reassurance. I knew she was terrified of giving birth alone and wanted me to be with her when it happened.
I was disturbed because I could see the pointlessness of having come here. Kersko was not what my friends claimed it was, an ideal place to write and that I was lucky to have two places to live. In fact, the opposite was true. Whenever I was in Prague I worried about what my cats were doing and I couldn’t write for fear they were hungry and alone. Then when I came to Kersko, I’d curse myself for not having stayed in Prague, because I couldn’t write there, either. My wife, it seems, was beginning to make sense. What were we going to do with all those cats? I already had enough cats of my own and now I had an extra one who’d just given birth to five kittens, and Blackie would shortly be giving birth to five more.
I was beginning to think it would be best to make a huge mail sack, beat all the kittens to death in it, then crawl into the bag and drown myself in the pond in the woods, or …
I now understood why my cats’ favorite pastime was playing with that large fiber handbag with the large green circular handles. Sometimes all the cats would crawl into it and fall asleep. The bag had been left behind by a fortune-teller, Mařenka, a former nurse who, in her free time, would walk the streets of our little town in a white turban with a green teardrop jewel on it. One day she came to gather wild mushrooms, and before she left she told my fortune from a deck of cards. She predicted not only that I would become a writer, but that I would find myself in a situation that would drive me to hang myself on a willow tree beside a river. She left behind that capacious handbag with the round green handles and never came back to pick it up because, in the meantime, she died.
At first I’d made light of her prophecy but then later took it seriously enough that I had all the branches of a willow tree beside the brook cut off. Nevertheless, within a year it had sprouted so many new branches that ten people could have hung themselves from it, as in a drawing by Goya.
Today, with her prediction on my mind, I went down to the brook and the willow tree was standing there, prepared to receive me, but I was not yet ready to fulfill Mařenka’s prophecy. To be on the safe side, though, I put all the milk and all the meat out on plates and then left, because I was terrified of what awaited me the next day.
An odd kind of inertia set in, making it impossible for me to be in Prague or Kersko, and since I was in Prague, I set out once more to Kersko to see the cats, and when I pulled up and got out of the car and the cats ran out to greet me, I knelt down and patted them but did not pick them up or press them to my face. I walked slowly under the birches, feeling aggravated and anxious because my favorite cat, Blackie, who was fondest of me and about whom I was crazy, had not come out to welcome me. I unlocked the door and poured out the milk and laid out the meat, and when I opened the window and looked out, I froze. There was Blackie lying in the bird feeder made from an old radio, and transmitting such an adoring look of love that I walked out of the house in a trance. When I reached the bird feeder, I saw that Blackie, too, had a litter of kittens, black and brindled, and she’d turned over on her back like a foundering battleship and was gazing at me lovingly, inviting me to behold the joy she’d brought to my parcel of land, that here, in the bird feeder, she was offering me her treasure, her five little kittens. I stuck my hand inside and Blackie licked it, and I rested my head on top of the feeder and held both hands out to Blackie, pressing my head on the old radio as though I were listening to news of fresh catastrophes in the world. I took a deep breath and tried to relax but couldn’t quite manage it, so I remained there a while longer, my heart pounding, while the words my wife would utter to brighten my weekends in Kersko came into my head: “What will we do with all those cats?”
When I had regained some of my composure, my first thought was of Mařenka’s prophecy, but then I realized that were I to hang myself from my own willow tree by the brook, there would be no one to give food and drink to the cats. I stepped back from the feeder and looked at Blackie, at her beautiful, adoring eyes bright with pride, then she turned on her side so the kittens could suckle more easily and I was so moved by her eyes and by the love flowing from those eyes to mine that I stuck my head into the feeder and Blackie and I touched noses and she licked me over and over again as if I were one of her kittens, and snuffled such sweet words of kitty love into my ears that I decided I would keep all of those kittens, come what may, and would offer five hundred crowns as a kind of kitty dowry to anyone who would agree to take one.
I brought Blackie some milk in a saucer, and she lifted herself up on her front legs and lapped it up, then I took the saucer to the woodshed for the tabby cat. After that, I went for a walk around our property, at times as far as the end of the lane where I turn to go to the bus stop, and from there I looked back at my cottage beneath those towering pines and birches, and thought that no one would believe I could be so utterly miserable here because of all those cats. I knew I’d have to kill some of those kittens in the woodshed in the canvas mail sack under the potato basket where the stray cat had given birth to five kittens, as many as Blackie, who had dropped her litter of five in the bird feeder among the remnants of the bread crumbs and oatmeal. I looked at my cottage from a distance and thought that no one, myself included, would have the audacity to claim that this modest house with the green shutters, shaded by tall trees, was anything but a place of pleasure and delight, providing a comfortable life for a writer who maintains two households and is free to choose between them, according to the mood of the moment.
That Sunday, when my wife was again bemoaning the fact that we had so many cats, a car pulled up to our gate and a young man got out and, to our surprise, he was holding an emaciated tomcat in his arms. He said that his mother had been persuaded to return Renda to us because he refused to touch his liver or milk, though it was only in the past week that he started making a fuss about it and so the young man’s mother had agreed to send him back to where she’d got him over three months before. Then the young man left, and Renda, my glorious tomcat, that king of cats, that Renda who had been such a gorgeous creature and took care of all the kittens regardless of whose they were, now sat there, nervously clawing away at a coat of fur that had once glistened and shone like an otter’s pelt but was now limp and stringy, as though he had just crawled out of a sewer. And when he got up and began walking toward the cottage, he recognized at once where he was and arched his back. He went inside, walked around his chair and rubbed noses with his relatives, then he sat down in front of me and stared at me so long and intensely that I had to avert my eyes. Renda jumped up on my lap and put his paws on my shoulders and looked right into me, and I had to return his gaze and I saw that his eyes were the eyes of Máca, who had run off to the Míčeks’ and never come back, preferring to die somewhere in a woodshed to being here with me and those other annoying kittens.
When Renda had finished looking into my eyes, he jumped down, this former charmer who had once glistened and shone and bristled with electricity, and walked unsteadily away, arching his gaunt back as if to demonstrate how wretched I’d made him, and he left, only to come back a while later, as if there were something more he had to tell me, some additional details about all that had befallen him during those three months, but he reconsidered and, cocking his wretched neck, he strutted off at a comic gait toward the river.
—Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson
Bohumil Hrabal (1914–1997) was born in Moravia and started writing poems under the influence of French surrealism. In the early fifties, he began to experiment with a stream-of-consciousness style and eventually wrote such classics as Closely Watched Trains (made into an Academy Award–winning film directed by Jiri Menzel), The Death of Mr. Baltisberger, and Too Loud a Solitude. He fell to his death from the fifth floor of a Prague hospital, apparently trying to feed the pigeons.
Paul Wilson has translated books by Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ivan Klima, and Josef Škvorecký. He lives in Canada.
From All My Cats, by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Paul Wilson © New Directions.
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